Allan Holdsworth: A biography (Atavachron 1994)

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Who is Allan Holdsworth?

Originally published on the Atavachron website

Chris Hoard

Allan Holdsworth is known to contemporary musicians as an uncompromising virtuoso who has redefined and re-invented the voice and scope of the electric guitar. To the mainstream of rock and jazz audiences, he remains a lesser known, unsung hero. To the steadily growing number of listeners around the world who are familiar with his work, Holdsworth looms large as a musical legend and commercially obscure enigma.

The sounds of Django Reinhardt, Jimmy Rainey, Charlie Christian, Joe Pass, Eric Clapton, and John Coltrane were among the primary inspirations identified by Holdsworth which steered him away from an early passion for bicycle racing and instead towards learning to play a musical instrument. Having never picked up a guitar until his late teens, he found his musical hobby paying off on England's Mecca dance hall circuit. Born in Bradford, Yorkshire (U.K.), in 1946, Holdsworth had been tutored in many aspects of musical theory and jazz appreciation by his father, Sam, an accomplished amateur musician. Allan later went on to analyze scales on his own, based on mathematical permutations of intervals-the results of which can still be heard in Allan's playing today.

His career began in the early 1970s, as a sideman to the protean forces who merged rock's electric instrumentation and driving pulse with the improvisational mastery and harmonic explorations realized by seminal jazz stylists such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Holdsworth provided the searing, flamboyant edge that galvanized that era's most celebrated recordings by formative jazz/rock experimenters such as Soft Machine, Tony William's New Lifetime, and Jean-Luc Ponty.

Holdsworth's early career was frought with desperation and dry spells, and from his late teens through his mid-twenties music was a mostly sporadic venture and hobby; he supported himself primarily repairing bicycles during this time. His first known project as a leader was a low-budget project recorded in 1969 on the Decca label with a few of his local Yorkshire friends-the band's name was Igginbottom, and the music was derivative of the psychedelic rock fashionable at the time-yet even then, the origins of Holdsworth's prowess and vision as a guitarist were readily apparent. Veteran British jazz saxophonist Ray Warleigh who travelled frequently around the country, was actually the first professional to "discover" Holdsworth. Warleigh, who played in a large, state-supported dance-hall band (as did some of the other members of Igginbottom), was instrumental in introducing Allan to the London clubscene. At the time, Holdsworth's major influences were a wide range of American jazz greats - in particular Benny Goodman's guitarist Charlie Christian and saxophonist John Coltrane-and in particular the psychedelic, bluesy hard rock of Cream.

Later, Holdsworth would form a lasting association and friendship with the legendary Cream bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce, who appeared on 1984's Road Games EP, which to date has not yet been released on CD (and may never be). Holdsworth's success on the rock front came about suddenly in 1971 when he joined Tempest, a critically acclaimed rock group led by drummer John Hiseman, which featured English vocalist Paul Williams. After a successful first U.S. tour and promising initial sales, the band broke up, and Holdsworth found himself scraping among London's jazz club circuit for the occasional gig, sitting in mostly with jazz groups at famed clubs such as Ronnie Scott's. Eventually Holdsworth came to the attention of members of the celebrated avant-garde ensemble, Soft Machine-and found himself again working steadily for a year and a half. In 1974, Soft Machine released Bundles: an English jazz/rock classic which featured Holdsworth prominently, and brought his playing to the attention of longtime Miles Davis drummer, Tony Williams. Williams secured a new contract for his own band, Lifetime-which was originally a jazz-rock ensemble Williams forged with guitarist John McLaughlin. Two albums were released during '75 and '76 -- but the band never established the degree of success realized by Columbia Records other fusion powerhouse, Chick Corea's Return To Forever. Nevertheless, working with keyboardist Alan Pasqua and bassist Tony Newton proved one of Holdsworth's most enjoyable and rewarding endeavors, and his association with these musicians has continued through to the present. 1975's Believe It is still considered by jazz/rock enthusiasts to be one of the greatest albums recorded during the 1970s-its followup, Million Dollar Legs found Williams (likely coerced into) pushing the band into a more commercial mold-and it never met the label's expectation for sales; management problems ensued and Holdsworth found himself stranded in the U.S. after the group's final tour without plane fare back to England. "I lived out of a suitcase, sleeping on floors for the better part of five years," he once recounted in an interview about this period, during which his first marriage ended in a divorce.

A brief 1975 visit to New York City, produced a recording no longer in print, Velvet Darkness -- which featured none other than legendary producer/drummer Narada Michael Walden, and bassist Alphonzo Johnson (then of Weather Report). Holdsworth's experience with CTI records proved a disaster; after completing what he thought were studio run-through rehearsals, Holdsworth was suddenly thanked by the session producer, Creed Taylor-and told "we have enough takes for the album." Only after tens of thousands of copies sold-and eighteen years later did Holdsworth ever realize any compensation for the project, and then only after threatening legal action. Epic Records, at Holdsworth's request, removed the CD re-issue from print.

Soon thereafter, Holdsworth contributed to one of Jean Luc Ponty's landmark fusion recordings, Enigmatic Ocean (1976) -- and abruptly left Ponty's band while on tour, presented with the opportunity to work with Bill Bruford on his first solo project, Feels Good To Me, soon after the breakup of the mid-70s King Crimson. During this time Holdsworth also worked with the French avant-rock ensemble, Gong, and recorded with that group on two of their albums, Expresso (also released as Gazeuse!), and Expresso II.

A broad rock audience first became aware of Holdsworth's amazingly inventive melodic runs when he dominated two definitive "progressive rock" albums from the late 70's; U.K., and Bill Bruford's One of A Kind. In both projects, Bruford, one of rock's most renowned drummers, brought Holdsworth before a much larger, international audience. The successful 1978 debut release by U.K. was a band originally planned as a reunion of King Crimson members, until Robert Fripp backed out of the project. Bruford suggested the remaining trio, including bassist/vocalist John Wetton and violinist/keyboardist Eddie Jobson. Holdsworth was known in England primarily as one of the country's foremost "jazz" guitarists due to his work with Tony Williams, Gong, and Jean-Luc Ponty. The personal chemistry of U.K. proved almost immediately to be too volatile to contain four musical leaders in one group setting. Holdsworth and Bruford left the band, and continued their earlier, more jazz oriented venture in Bruford. Holdsworth, however, still felt stifled in the confines of Bruford's slick studio mega-productions. He sought out a more immediate, live-oriented recording environment, and the less rigid ensemble dynamics he found so vital during his earlier work with Tony Williams. Now based out of London with little to do but repair amps and sell off equipment accumulated during his stadium rock stint with U.K., Holdsworth began rehearsals with Jack Bruce and John Hiseman-and tried to attract interest in a project. With the punk movement then in full force, English label interest in a new "progressive" or "jazz" oriented project was at an all-time low. Having recorded on a few low-budget sessions with pianist Gordon Beck in the late '70s, Holdsworth eventually heard about a brilliant young drummer from Leeds, Gary Husband. The two immediately forged a musical partnership-which has continued off and on to this day. They eventually found a bassist, Paul Carmichael, and Paul Williams joined the group as a vocalist-flying back to London from his home in Orange County, California to rehearse and record the IOU project, (which took its name from the fact it was recorded over a weekend with funds borrowed from friends of the band). The IOU project was finally launched independently in the U.S. on a bare-bones, shoe string budged largely by vocalist Paul Williams, who formed the short-lived "Luna Crack" label out of his apartment in Tustin, California. This occured over two years after the recording-at a point in Holdsworth's life when had nearly given up on a career as a working musician. Given few job prospects of any kind, upon Paul Williams' prompting, he moved temporarily to California in 1981 to "test the waters." Holdsworth was immediately immersed in attention from the press and a American cult audience ravenous for his talents.

During the coming year, a longtime Holdsworth admirer, rock guitar great Eddie Van Halen introduced Holdsworth to the Warner Bros. label but the low-budget freedom Holdsworth enjoyed in producing IOU suddenly turned into a big budget nightmare running out-of-control due to the label executives meddling in a project they originally agreed to let Holdsworth produce. Holdsworth, faced with not being able to support the costs of half a band living in England, auditioned a California rhythm section, and came up with Chad Wackerman and Jeff Berlin (the American bassist known for his exceptional playing on Bill Bruford's solo projects featuring Holdsworth). The vocal tracks on that album originally sung by Paul Williams had to redone after executive producer Ted Templeman decided Warner Bros. did not want Williams to participate in the project. In desperation Holdsworth phoned Jack Bruce, who came and sang on three songs. As a compromise Templeman allowed Holdsworth to retain Williams on one of the tracks.

Despite the difficulties, Holdsworth received a Grammy nomination in 1984 for the Road Games EP. Having nearly given up on music, friends prompted him to move to Southern California where an eager and devoted core following awaited him. He soon struck up a partnership with the fledgling label Enigma (later bought out by Capitol), which later became his current label, Restless, after Enigma entered bankruptcy proceedings. His production work became more refined, and he broadened a roster of guest vocalist appearances through the course of Metal Fatigue (1985), Atavachron (1986), Sand (1988), and Secrets (1990). With the release of Secrets (Restless), Holdsworth further revealed a rich musical vision, where contemporary forms of music are crafted in an improvisational context in defiance of conventional harmonic boundaries. 1992's Wardenclyffe Tower (Restless) furthered an exploration of Holdsworth's own designs for baritone electric guitars (built by California luthier Bill DeLap) and broadened of his orchestrative chords and solo phrasings via the guitar-synth controller, the SynthAxe.

Beginning with the album Atavachron (Restless, 1986), Holdsworth devoted increasing attention to the SynthAxe. This immediately brought him recognition in Guitar Player Magazine's poll as "Best Guitar Synthesist" for four consecutive years. A five time poll winner, Holdsworth is already a n inductee into Guitar Player's hall of fame. Despite the notoriety, guitar synthesis was only one of several major facets of instrumental and technical innovations pioneered and explored by Holdsworth, who continues to design unconventionally scaled guitars and invent an assortment of signal processing electronics for the guitar. His fascination with the Synthaxe has continued since the mid-80's;Holdsworth often performed with this instrument, having attached a breath controller tube to it-perhaps continuing a conscious pursuit of the instrument he was first attracted to-the saxophone.

Holdsworth's growing number of solo albums have featured an impressive list of some of the finest guest sidemen-and leaders-in contemporary jazz and rock, including drummers Chad Wackerman (a veteran of Frank Zappa's band), bassist Jimmy Johnson (leader of Flim and the BBs), and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (who currently works with Sting). Keyboardists Alan Pasqua, Billy Childs, drummer Tony Williams, and bassist Gary Willis have all appeared as guest musicians on Allan Holdsworth projects during the past decade. Holdsworth himself has occasionally appeared as a guest musician on a wide range of projects in jazz and rock-including among others, Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke, Level 42, Chad Wackerman, and the recent Come Together: Guitar Tribute to The Beatles (NYC Records), in which Holdsworth collaborated once more with long time friend and great English jazz pianist, Gordon Beck for a riveting, swinging version of "Michelle."

Hard Hat Area (Restless), his most recent solo project at this writing opens a stunning new chapter in his career. As a producer and composer, Holdsworth continues to forge new territory and straddle the spaces between familiar, comfortable musical genres. Hard Hat Area was a particularly satisfying album for Holdsworth because it captured much of the energy and live interaction of his current quartet-which features Icelandic bass phenomenon Skuli Sverrisson, keyboardist Steve Hunt, and long-time collaborator, drummer Gary Husband (who, with Holdsworth, originally formed the IOU band in 1979). On this album, the sum of Holdsworth's production values realize an enchanting rhythmic and harmonic alchemy-potent with unexpected melodic twists and explosive turns. Hard Hat Area reveals some of Holdsworth's most dramatic soloing ever, and in the case of the title track, increasingly cinematic and unconventional studio compositions.

Like many of the greatest jazz players of this century, Holdsworth has never been one to abandon his musical instincts in pursuit of commercial viability. Whether he is writing the music-or interpreting another composers music with his uncannily singular approach to melodic progressions-his melodic sensibilities never fail to surprise and amaze a devoted following, which includes a growing crowd of the most successful electric guitarists of recent decades.

Like few guitarists before him, Holdsworth realized a style, tone, and technique in a league of its own, a discipline he still strives to perfect, and is rarely satisfied with. Many musicians who've heard it never again looked at a guitar in quite the same way. In 1993, Holdsworth was heralded prominently by Musician Magazine as one of the top five of their "100 greatest guitarists of all time." Today Holdsworth is widely revered as the virtuoso guitar stylist-and perhaps the world's foremost guitar synthesist. As for the legacy of his accelerated, legato lead guitar phrasings, Guitar Player's editor, Tom Mulhern credited him as that rare sort of guitarist who "originated his own school" of guitar playing. While Holdsworth becomes increasingly recognized for his compositional ideas, his famed liquid legato-lead guitar stylings have become his trademark sound; his use of perfectly controlled distortion to soar over ever-evolving arrays of complex chordal harmonies has become one of the most mimicked styles in contemporary jazz and rock guitar.

Since 1980, Holdsworth's growing recognition spanned the production of nine studio albums, including a collaborative project with jazz pianist Gordon Beck, With A Heart In My Song (Nova). Extensive U.S. touring eventually led to broadened interest in Japan and Europe, and more recently Australia and South America, where Holdsworth now makes regular rounds. Holdsworth continues to tour extensively, having recently sold out performances in Japan, Australia, Europe, and throughout the U.S. A February 1992 review by L.A. Times jazz critic Don Heckman raved about Holdsworth's touring band-which then included regulars Jimmy Johnson and Chad Wackerman, proclaiming Holdsworth "an unlikely guitar hero whose phrasing has much in common with the expressions of saxophonist John Coltrane."

Holdsworth still pursues his daily passion as an avid road cyclist (when touring and recording permit) and currently resides near San Diego, California, where a large converted garage, serves as his personal studio, "The Brewery." He lives in an unusual house-the structure is a geodesic dome, and enjoys frequent jaunts with friends to the nearest micro-brewery. His wife Claire keeps a steadfast vigil, helping in any way possible to help Allan sort through the rigor of keeping the lurking creatures of the music industry at bay. Holdsworth is also a devoted father and Star Trek fan. Claire and Allan have three children-Louise, Sam and Emily (in age-descendent order). Ever the true Englishman, Holdsworth relishes sampling and serving up fine ales of the world in his home. He has retrieved from English pubs-two original "hand pumps" used for removing excess carbonation. He's only too happy to demonstrate this device for a parade of guests and well-wishers during brief respites from his eternal quest for "the perfect tone."

Written by Chris Hoard; © 1994 Hoard Productions.